NASA Tentatively Approves Extended Operations for Seven Planetary Missions

NASA Tentatively Approves Extended Operations for Seven Planetary Missions

NASA’s Planetary Science Division (PSD) has largely adopted the recommendations of its Senior Review panel to continue operations of seven existing planetary science spacecraft, but the approval is tentative until budgets are better understood.   One surprise was the panel’s sharp criticism of the proposal made by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team, whose Curiosity rover is the newest and probably best known of the seven missions.  The panel said it was left with the impression the MSL team believes it is “too big to fail” and submitted a proposal that “lacked scientific focus and detail.”

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, which includes PSD, routinely conducts Senior Reviews of its ongoing missions to determine if continued operations are warranted or if the money could be better spent on new projects.  Each project team typically submits a proposal for the next two years of operations, explaining what research would be conducted, how much it would cost, and the anticipated scientific return.  Seven missions were up for review this year:

  • Cassini — a U.S. spacercaft orbiting Saturn since 2004
  • Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) — a U.S. spacecraft orbiting the Moon since 2009
  • Mars Exploration Rover (MER) — the U.S. Opportunity rover that has been traversing the Martian surface since 2004 (its sister, Spirit, is no longer functioning)
  • Mars Express (MEX) — a European spacecraft that includes U.S. instruments, orbiting Mars since 2003
  • Mars Odyssey — a U.S. spacecraft orbiting Mars since 2001
  • Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – a U.S. spacecraft orbiting Mars since 2006
  • Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) — better known as Curiosity, the name of the U.S. rover that landed in 2012

Cassini is an exception in this round of deliberations.  That spacecraft will reach the end of its life in 2017, three years from now, so its proposal was for all three years rather than two.  (In 2017, when Cassini’s fuel is just about depleted, NASA will command Cassini to enter Saturn’s atmosphere where it will be destroyed rather than posing an environmental hazard to Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus, which are possible candidates for life.)

The Senior Review panel found that extended operations of all seven missions are a good value for NASA and American taxpayers because they “are essentially new missions without the development and launch costs.”  It rated Cassini the highest of the seven.   It recommended continued operations of the other six, too, but with modifications to the proposals made for LRO, MEX and MSL/Curiosity.

For LRO, the panel concluded that three instruments were at the end of their useful scientific life, but PSD agreed to terminate only one of them (Mini-RF) because the other two are still useful to other parts of NASA.   For MEX, the panel recommended and PSD agreed to terminate almost all activities of the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) image calibration and validation team and to add funding for joint ionospheric studies between MEX and NASA’s new MAVEN mission that will reach Mars next month.

The panel was critical of some of the other proposals, but none more so than the one for extended operations of MSL/Curiosity.  Noting that the Project Scientist was available only via phone for the panel’s review and not available at all to answer follow-up questions, “This left the panel with the impression that the team felt they were too big to fail and that simply having someone show up would suffice.”  Overall it found the MSL proposal “lacked scientific focus and detail” and was particularly unimpressed with the proposal for the number of planned drilling operations:  “only eight (8) samples will be taken in two years … This means that during the prime and [Extended Mission 1] missions a total of 13 analyses will be made by a highly capable rover.  The panel viewed this as a poor science return for such a large investment in a flagship mission.”

Consequently, the panel recommended that the rover travel a shorter distance than the 8 kilometers proposed and focus on studies at three rather than four sites so the three could be better characterized.  Overall, it “strongly” urged NASA Headquarters to “get the Curiosity team focused on maximizing high-quality science that justifies the capabilities of and capital investment in Curiosity.”

In a briefing to the NASA Advisory Council’s Planetary Science Subcommittee (NAC-PSS) this morning, PSD Program Executive Bill Knopf said that PSD approved a two-year extension of the MSL/Curiosity mission, but asked that the project team “develop a new task plan.”

Knopf stressed that PSD’s approval for all the extended missions is “tentative” while NASA awaits final determination of its FY2015 budget and formulation of its FY2016 budget request.  In a later briefing today to a joint meeting of NAC-PSS and the National Research Council’s Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS), PSD Director Jim Green went further, emphasizing that the Senior Review’s recommendations are “only one element” in the decision process. Programmatic and budgetary considerations, as well as congressional direction must all be taken into account, he said.

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